While BMW had the opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper with the new MINI, instead it decided to create a conventional small car with retro styling. But for the last couple of years DaimlerChrysler-owned subsidiary MCC has been producing the Smart.
Although it wasn't originally intended for the UK, the number of imports prompted DaimlerChrysler to set up a UK sales network. There will be no right-hand drive Smarts for a few more months, so the first 12 months of official imports will be left-hand drive models. But Smart believes it is on the road to success in the UK and has done enough to convince the ultra-conservative fleet market that it is a viable proposition. Despite its outlandish appearance, the Smart is relatively conventional underneath.
Our test car was the mid-range Smart and Pulse. It sits in the range above the Smart and Pure and below the Smart and Passion. It is the more 'sporty' car in the range and is priced at £6,600 on-the-road.
For the purpose of this test we have chosen to pitch it against three European competitors within the price bracket. The main advantage of its rivals is that they all have four seats. Just under £7,000 would buy an entry-level Ford Ka - still popular after five years. But you would need to spend at least £500 more on air conditioning to begin to achieve the same level of specification as the Smart.
However, the same money would buy a Citroen Saxo 1.1i Forte, which matches the Smart's electric windows, while a Fiat Seicento 1.1SX would undercut the Smart by almost £400. But the Seicento needs an extra £1,200 to cover the cost of air conditioning and ABS - both standard on the Smart. Alternatives don't end there, however, with the well-equipped Daewoo Matiz SE just coming in under the price of the Smart and offering five doors, almost as much equipment and three years' free servicing.